Behind the scenes with McNally '03 at 'The Girl Show'

by Sarah Maxell and Carl Burnett | 5/12/03 5:00am

"The Girl Show" might be a loaded title for an art show -- but that's the way Caitlin McNally '03 seems to like it. McNally curated the all-female exhibition, which opens tonight in the Area gallery, as part of a senior thesis in art history.

In a BlitzMail interview with The Dartmouth, McNally talked about conceptions of feminity, the stereotypes inherent in a project called "The Girl Show" and what it was like convincing the art history department to accept her unorthodox thesis proposal.

The Dartmouth: What exactly is your thesis is all about?

Caitlin McNally '03: My thesis is two-pronged: there is a written component -- a traditional academic paper -- and then the "Girl Show" exhibition in Area. The written component traces a lineage of feminist art and art theory from the revolutionary moment of the late '60s/early '70s through contemporary art being made by women.

The focus of the thesis narrows around the concept of mythology, how three decades of women artists have engaged with mythologies of femininity and the myth of the woman artist herself (versus the concept of the artist in a traditional male-dominated art historical canon).

The exhibition branches off of the thesis, although the two don't really reference each other. I wanted to trace this lineage of women's work and reception in the arts, and then localize the question by celebrating female students work in the arts at Dartmouth.

The D: What were your intentions going into this project? Have they changed while you've been working on it?

CM: I wanted to balance the more solitary, scholarly experience of writing a thesis paper with an interactive, collaborative project. While it's important to acknowledge the conceptual and theoretical reasons for organizing this show, I wanted to divorce the show itself from any over-arching political and/or feminist didacticism. Those underpinnings might be present within the work or somewhere behind the organization of the show, but circumscribing the entire project in that way was not the approach I wanted to take.

The core of the show is celebration of a group of diverse women in our community creating art across all mediums. Engagement with each artist on the terms of her individual contribution. Read into it what or where you will.

Has it changed? Of course. That's the miracle of working on a project and seeing it assume its own form and its own texture as months go by. This metamorphosis was perhaps the most exciting part of the project for me -- seeing each artist take ownership of their contributions and letting dialogues with each artist inform the shaping of the show. Things like this don't happen in a solitary vacuum.

The D: How did you get the idea for this show?

CM: I was standing in Area one afternoon before school started in the fall, and I thought, How great would it be if there was a big extravaganza of artists creating in the moment, in front of the viewer's eyes, instead of the typical, fairly static gallery experience -- process as performance?

I brought the idea to professor Angela Rosenthal, and we talked about it a lot. We discussed the idea with Kathy Hart, my Hood internship advisor, and eventually we decided that the creation-in-the-moment idea would be logistically too difficult. Professor Rosenthal and I then went at it again, remembering all the crazy and radical performance art women were doing in the early '70s, and from there we shifted the focus to women artists.

Professor Rosenthal works with gender theory in art history, and her women artists class spawned my interest in doing a thesis on feminism in art. So we brainstormed a way to tie the two together, practically and conceptually. Kind of roundabout, but it all coalesced right away once we got going on the idea.

The D: Why is it important to have shows like "The Girl Show" that focus on women artists?

CM: A gallery show almost always chooses some sort of focus, some thematic or aesthetic denominator, whether it be blatant or esoteric. I chose this focus because I think the concept of a student-run gallery is vitally important, and it's the students' responsibility to use the space as creatively and thoughtfully as possible.

Dartmouth isn't really considered an "artsy school" -- it's not part of Dartmouth's traditional perceived identity. So it becomes our job to support and vocalize and celebrate a facet of the undergraduate experience at Dartmouth that may go overlooked, or may get marginalized in its own social or academic niche.

More specifically, I chose the gender focus because I wanted to set up people's expectations and blow them apart. The point is to embrace cliches, stereotypes and mythologies that may come along with something entitled "The Girl Show." It's important to play with certain problematics in order to subvert them. It's important to have a girl show because what you're going to see is that that title can carry infinite different meanings -- as infinite as the contributions of the artists involved.

The D: Was it easy to convince the art history department to let you do this project rather than a traditional written thesis?

CM: The department wanted to be sure that a traditional paper would be a part of the project, which it is. Once I made it clear that I was very serious about executing a "real thesis" on paper, and that the show was stemming from that work, they were very supportive.

The D: How did you choose the artists for the show?

CM: For a couple years now I've been involved, either directly or indirectly, in theater, film, dance, studio art and art history at Dartmouth. So I know a lot of women in these fields. Part of the impetus for this project was exactly that -- having been exposed to and involved in all this really vibrant, exciting work in the arts at Dartmouth and meeting these extremely courageous, driven, talented women making art.

I informally dialogued with women I know in each field, and that led to more names of artists I didn't know, and eventually a group assembled. It was pretty symbiotic -- I formed a list in my mind based on my own knowledge of and research into Dartmouth women working in the arts, and then I met with all the women and found who showed interest in the project, who wanted to commit and invest.

The D: What do you have planned for opening night?

CM: A celebration. A big, ballsy, colorful, off-color carnival. D.J., drinks, a girl dancing in a box, girls slamming poetry, girls improv acting, girls on film. The art, which anchors the celebration. Thongs. Poems. Party clothes.

The D: Why should people come see this show?

CM: Things like this don't happen often (or enough) at Dartmouth. There is not enough exhibition space for students. There is a phenomenal amount of talent amongst women artists that needs to be seen and heard and talked about. The more opportunity students have to come in contact with each other's creative endeavors, the better. It's going to be a damn good party.

"The Girl Show: A Gala Celebration of Dartmouth Women Artists" opens tonight from 8:30"11:30 p.m. in Area, the student-run art gallery located in the Top of the Hop.

The show features drawings by Betsy Colman '03, prints by Lois Schonberger '03, photography by Meredith Esser '03, Joyce Fu '03 and Rachel Gepner '03, paintings by Laura Grey '02, Liz Perman '04 and Katie Van Syckle '05, sculpture by Callie Thompson '05 and installations by Thompson and Van Syckle. It also includes poetry by Nomi Stone '03 and Thompson, theater pieces by Alexis McGuinness '03, Deb Meschan '03 and Liv Rooth '03, dance by Lindsay Orchowski '03, fashion by Lisa Salzer '04 and "edible art" by Jourdan Abel '03, Cat Roberts '05 and Holly Shaffer '03. (Shaffer and Van Syckle are members of The Dartmouth staff.)